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6 Disruptive Church Trends That Will Rule 2017

The culture continues to change rapidly around you as a church leader.

You get that.

And yet sometimes the change is easy to miss.

Last January, I outlined 5 disruptive church trends that would dominate 2016.

2017 is no different. In fact, the need for change is more urgent because our culture is arguably changing faster than it was even a year ago.

The question—as always— is: are you ready as a leader?

Too many church leaders are perfectly equipped to reach a world that no longer exists.

In the hopes of helping every leader better accomplish our collective mission, here are 6 disruptive church trends I see defining conversation and action in 2017.

church trends

1. Consumer Christianity will die faster than ever

Over the last 100 years, North American Christianity somehow fused with consumerism to the point where we wrongly defined discipleship as what we can get from God (or from a church).

That’s because, at its heart, consumer Christianity asks What’s in it for me?

As I outlined in this post, that view of Christianity is simply backwards. Christian maturity isnt marked by how much we know or what we can get, it’s marked by how much we love and how much we give in light of how deeply we’ve been loved and how much we’ve been given.

Even critics who have left the church have done so under the pull of consumer Christianity because ‘no church’ meets their needs.

All of this is antithetical to the Gospel, which calls us to die to ourselves—to lose ourselves for the sake of Christ. Our faith calls us to live for Christ and to love and reach the world for which He died.

As the church reformats and repents, a more authentic, more selfless church will emerge.

When you’re no longer focused on yourself and your viewpoint, a new tone emerges.

If your church is still defined by what you ‘offer’ members to satisfy them, and isn’t defined by how you love each other and the world around you, the clock is ticking faster than ever.

2. Cool Church will Morph

Many church planters and leaders who are transitioning churches continue to want to create ‘cool churches.’

In this post, I wrote about why—surprisingly–cool church is dying and what the rebirth might look like.

Since that piece was published, it’s become even more clear that having great preaching, a great band, and even lights and haze is less a guarantee of growth.

The reason ‘cool church’ was effective for a few decades is because most churches were so bad. So Christians (and a good share of non-Christians) gravitated toward a new breed of churches that were bridging the cultural gap.

But things continue to change.

Imagine for a minute that you aren’t leading a church, but running an incredible hamburger stand. You may have the best burgers in town, but what if people want to eat kale? It doesn’t matter how awesome your hamburgers are if nobody wants to eat hamburgers. (Before you email me, I love burgers. But that’s not the point…)

With the rise of post-Christian America, fewer people want what the church is offering, no matter how great we think the offering is.

Cool church was a bridge to get us out of ‘bad church’ (as in completely out of touch) and into something better.

Somewhere along the way, though, many of us confused mission with method. Cool church is a method. It is not the mission.

Having great preaching, a decent band and an awesome facility or environment is not a bad thing. It beats having terrible preaching, pathetic music, and a dingy facility.

But unchurched people are increasingly interested in the mission more than the method. They want to meet Jesus.

They have enough cool in their lives. They don’t have enough Jesus.

Cool church might not stop being cool (cool helps), but increasingly we’ll all realize cool is not nearly enough.

The cool churches that make it in the future will continue to morph into deeper authenticity, deeper community, deeper love and greater hope as I outline here.

3. Preachers Who Can’t Speak to the Unchurched Will Preach to a Shrinking Crowd

Just because your church is growing doesn’t mean you’re accomplishing your mission. Unless, of course, your mission is to attract unhappy Christians from other churches.

One day, every church will have to learn how to reach unchurched people because only unchurched people will be left.

Better figure that out now if you want to be effective in accomplishing your mission.

Preaching is a big part of that.

2016 was a year in which Andy Stanley came under considerable fire for some sermons he preached. Andy explained his approach in this article, which is well worth your time to read.

So before I say what I’m going to say, full disclosure: I deeply admire and appreciate Andy and North Point, and I’m the Founding Pastor of Connexus Church, a North Point strategic partner.

To me, Josh Daffern made the most significant observation I’ve seen over Andy’s approach, and that’s simply that Andy is speaking to an audience most preachers never speak to: non-Christians.

Like North Point, many of the people who come to Connexus for the first time self-identify as having no pattern of regular church attendance (about 60% of new guests in our case). I preach to them regularly.

I promise you, if you think you can speak to a group of believers and non-believers the way you would speak to believers alone, you’re wrong.

You certainly don’t need to alter the foundational message, but you do need to rethink your approach.

Empathy, more than almost anything, helps you connect with people in this culture.

If you’ve never thought through what it’s like to be in church for the first time, with little to no church background, with a different moral code operating in your life, hearing truths that are thousands of years old, and trying to figure out your life through a very different lens, well, it will be exceptionally difficult for you to connect with unchurched people.

Preachers who can’t speak to the unchurched will speak to an ever-shrinking crowd because one day only unchurched people will be left.

4. Preaching will fuse both the head and the heart

Some preachers preach from the head. Others more naturally preach from the heart.

I had some fascinating conversations in the last year with numerous leaders (including Ravi Zacharias and Louie Giglio) about where preaching is heading.

I believe the most effective preachers in the future will be those who fuse the head and the heart in their preaching.

If you preach mostly to the head of your audience, start thinking about what connects with the heart.

Information alone doesn’t bring about transformation. Preaching to the head can lead to a changed mind, but not a changed life.

If you preach mostly to the heart of your audience, start thinking about what connects with the mind.

Preaching only to the heart creates emotional followers, whose faith rises and falls with their feelings.

The goal, of course, is to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength.

Preaching that reflects that goal will connect far better.

5. Anonymity will continue to give way to community

For decades, being anonymous at church was seen as a virtue. And to some extent, that’s still true.

To be awkwardly smothered on a first visit is almost always a turn-off.

The rise of technology in the last decade has created a strange paradox; people are more connected than ever but feel more disconnected than ever.

My sense on where connection is heading in the church is that it’s a lot like how I feel when I go to a store. I want to be anonymous until I don’t. The moment I’m ready, I want someone to engage me.

Some people head into your church wanting to be connected immediately. Others want to kick the tires a bit longer.

But when they want to engage, they want to engage. And in the future church, almost everyone will want to engage.

The days of sitting in the back row not knowing anyone, not serving anywhere, not engaging at all for years on end, are dying. After all, online is a great place to start and stay anonymous. And there are thousands of online options.

Figuring out how to connect people faster, at their own pace and in their own sequence, will become the hallmark of churches where many gather.

Anonymity is slowly giving way to community. People want to be anonymous, until they don’t.

6. Engagement will become the new attendance

For decades, church leaders have used Sunday attendance as a measure of effectiveness in ministry.

The challenge these days is that even committed Christians are attending church less often. Which means you can be reaching more people overall but your attendance may be flat or growing more slowly than you hoped simply because the person who used to come once a week now comes a few times a month.

This trend bothers me because, all too often, a step away from church is a step away from Christ. Very rarely do I see an irregular church attendee growing more deeply in their faith and effectiveness in reaching others than a regular church attendee. It happens, but it’s surprisingly rare.

So how do you break the cycle of infrequent attendance?

As I outlined here, wise leaders have stopped trying to attract people and started trying to engage people.

Engagement will become the new growth engine in the future church.

One of the changes you’ll see happening in 2017 is leaders who measure engagement as much or more than attendance.

How many people serve, how many give, how many invite their unchurched friends and how many jump into community beyond Sunday will become the new measure of effectiveness in growing churches even more than attendance.

If you don’t know those numbers, you won’t be able to evaluate the effectiveness of your ministry.

If you’re not focused on engagement, you will only see declining attendance.

After all, in the future church, only the engaged will attend because only the engaged will remain.

Want More?

If you want to dig deeper than this post, I outline more the trends facing the future church in my book, Lasting Impact: 7 Powerful Conversations That Will Help Your Church Grow.

If you want to drill down deeper with your team, The Lasting Impact Team Edition video series will walk your leadership team through 7 pivotal conversations in a way that will help your church navigate the change you need to make to stay effective in a changing culture.

Wondering whether the 7 conversations are the right ones for your church? You can read the customer reviews here.

The High Impact Leader Returns in April/May 2017

So you wanted this year to be your best yet, but it’s hard. Constant interruptions and distractions keep many leaders from getting their most important priorities accomplished. In addition, work keeps bleeding into family time. And before you know it, all your hopes for a better year get dashed.

What if you didn’t need to live that way anymore?

The High Impact Leader online course gives you highly practical, proven strategies on how to finally get time, energy, and priorities working in your favor.

Be the first to hear about the next release by signing up for The High Impact Leader waiting list here.

What Trends Do You See?

Those are the trends I see for 2017. What are you seeing?

Scroll down and leave a comment!

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  • BMightyCreative

    This is interesting.Coming from a marketing perspective I am wondering how you reconcile your first and second trend. You say in the first trend that we must focus on a selfless live, while true to our current membership and would definitely make sense – new visitors and people outside of Christian circles are still going to come with a ‘whats in it for me” perspective. Thats because the culture around us lives by that cultural norm. To your second point, if we serve hamburger (living a selfless life) and the culture wants kale (consumerist; what do I get out of this) – you’re essentially cancelling out your first two trends in favor of each other. As long as we have a culture that is asking, whats in it for them, this trend is likely to stick around. Thats not to say that it can’t be overcome, but I think that your observation of consumerism in modern churches ‘dying’ maybe overreaching. Great article, however!

  • When I was back in bible college, my focus was on communication. It struck me as a young man, growing up in gothic culture how out of touch most churches were; whether the Graham Kendrick ‘shine Jesus shine’ to the 3 point sermons. When I visited Kensington Temple I was struck by the creativity in ministry, the modern chord progression in music – but more then that, people from all walks of life rubbing shoulders together. Any pub was denoted as a ‘goth’ pub or a ‘house’ pub or whatever – in short, the world put segregations in place that the church did not. It blew me away. I attended ‘alternative’ churches designed to reach out to people like me. It was interesting, but intrinsically it was a life I wanted to leave behind not relish in. It stunk of a separate elitism that I found in both the pubs and clubs – and also in the ‘stand up, sit down, say thank you Lord’ middle class churches.

    When I studied Jesus’s communication I was struck by His own creativity. Look at these lillies, whose face is on this coin. His whole concept was creative communication, visual communication. In fact He himself was a tangible, visual revelation of a spiritual truth that is too far off for most people to grasp with their tiny minds. He broke it down into bite size, creative chunks. I wrestled with why the chasm of Protestant vs catholic removal of creativity an imagery which was seen as idolatry. They there the baby out with the bath water.

    The reality is people need visual stimulation. A child learns by patterns of light and things they can touch. The shapes and colours form into words and we learn to connect with the world around us and our meaning to all we see.

    My design and communication background has now led me to speak at many global events. I train business leaders how to communicate and work with audiences. I explain that our culture is visual with television seeing 35 frames/images per second. That visual is how your brain works. And in this culture you can rely on audio alone. And yet I got churches, and see people try audio techniques of 3 point sermons and thing ‘God will do the rest’. He doesn’t. He has given us eyes as well as ears. We need to taste and see that the Lord is Good not just those with ears listen to what the Spirit is saying. Spurgeons sermons worked on a culture before technology, whether radio or Netflix. We do not live in that culture. And if you dot prepare your presentation in the real world, your business dies. Yet the church is slow to catch on. Else they goto the other extreme of ‘alternative’ (read isolation) services.

    Having been a communication specialist all my life. Having stepped from a world many have not seen – an isolated and spiritually aware world – if we could not create visually stimulating, inclusive and culturally relevant stories then, in a hi-tech digital world of millennials we run the risk of missing how to communicate by limiting the word ‘preach’ to audio sermons that Jesus Himself would have questioned. We need to relearn from the Master of all communication Himself…

  • Robert

    I really appreciated this article and it raised a number of questions in my mind. I’m keen to know how, going forward, how others here define “engagement” given that, as the article suggests, attendance is not enough in and of itself. Typically, in many places, engagement tends to evolve around what happens in and around church worship services- – music, media, ushering- operational tasks.

    I would love to hear the views of Carey and others on this- the extent to which the church actually has meaningful and palpable avenues of engagement for its people- and how we identify and establish those in 2017 and onward.

  • Ian Hyatt

    This is great Carey and right on the money with every point in my opinion! I particularly love the first quote of pastors “being perfectly equipped to reach a world that no longer exists.” I talk with these types of pastors daily and do my best to help them become more relevant to better reach the current culture for Jesus. I am surprised at how often the “light bulb” does not go off with many leaders. I greatly rejoice when it does though. I think the light bulb does go off when a ministry leader actually begins to take steps and make changes within their ministry to better reach people today. I know I am stating the obvious there but I cannot believe how many pastors I have heard agree with some of these points you are making and the need to change what they are doing, but they just stop there… A leader has to not be afraid to offend the other leaders or members of their church who are resistant to healthy change. I have seen this as the main step they need to take but how else can the “light bulb” go off with these types of leaders?

  • Douglas Howland

    Number 4 – I get the church loves preaching. However, maybe this is a disruptive church trend that will rule 2017? We focus or structurally emphasis on one person to bear witness to those non-churched. As Jesus came to live with us, the church needs to move into the community and live with it. To get to know it, have late night converstations, understand it’s hurts, flaws, hopes and dreams. Pushing the church to empathise and then ask how are we as the church able help you as a community be who you want to be, but no matter what we will be present, loving and vulnerable. We will demonstrate that we care, that we can cry with you, that we might not have all the answers but we will walk with you through what ever you are going through. No matter how tough it gets we will stand with you and or theology won’t get in the way (even if we still believe what we believe).
    Then paired with number 6 engagement takes on a whole new meaning. It’s not how do we engage in church but as the church. What are your gifts, what are your strengths – you don’t know let us help you understand them. Now you know – how can you serve the community with your strengths and your gifts. And the church becomes a resource and has something to offer, not just a Sunday service. I recognise on this point I might just be re-emphasising your point.

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  • Billie Corbett

    Here is the problem…church, church, church.
    The Apostle Paul said, “I was determined to know nothing among you, except for Christ and him crucified. Where unto the world is crucified to me and I to the world.”
    Without conviction of sin…sinners have no awarenes of their deep need for salvation. “Salvation is of the LORD.” It is not “by the flesh, by blood or by the will of man”.
    Christ will be either a stumbling block to the natural man or He will be the power of God unto salvation.
    Believers need to “abide in Christ and He will abide in them…and they will bring forth much fruit.”
    The Church is the living, breathing body of Christ….believers who are united to Him in faith. Believers being in the Beloved (Christ) this is our calling…this is our mission. It is all about Jesus… If Christ is not being lifted up…then humankind will not be drawn to Him.
    Admit your own sinfulness…regularly. Seek Christ for cleansing and forgiveness. Communicate Christ as the only means of freedom from sin and self. Allow the Holy Spirit to sanctify, purify, clean and transform.
    Have a living faith…in the Living GOD. He will do the rest! This is His promise…”Come to me all you who are heavy laden and I will give your rest.” “The Spirit and the Bride say, Come.”

  • bkosha97

    Thanks for this. Great stuff. As a 37yr old worship leader, I have to admit I feel very comfortable in gen-x ministry styles, and am constantly trying to update my methods so I don’t fade comfortably and unintentionally into irrelevancy. Very good points here. Thank you.

    • Such a good observation. It’s the problem every generation faces. We know what we know. We like what we like. And then culture changes. Well said.

  • Eric Maier

    Hey Carey! Great article. Hits the bull’s-eye! This is on the cutting edge of what God is doing in the world via the Church. Some people get it; some won’t. This is packed with tons of wisdom and ideas for churces struggling to get their bearings in a world changing at lightning speed. Having been engaged at a few forward thinking churches over the years (Northpoint and Browns Bridge among them,) I’m now the Worship Minister of a rather traditional church. I was hired ostensibly to help them in their desired transition. However, I’m having trouble believing that they really wanted that transition in the first place. They are not getting it. I may check out your book to see if there’s any approaches that might work. I’ll stay tuned for more! Blessings!!! EM

  • Jennifer Fraley

    Number 6 still bugs me. I believe one’s personal faith can be fostered both inside and outside the church, but I think over engagement, there could and possibly SHOULD be an expectation to attend church. This ritual serves multiple functions. ALL of our institutions are changing in some capacity with advances in technology, but you’re still expected (to some degree) to show up to work or school (granted, those things are morphing as well). Why is church so different or more importantly, why would it be the first fade? I have a great appreciation for those congregations that are still able to make church attendance a norm and expectation.

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  • Bill

    I stopped attending for lack of meat, and genuineness. I did not gravitate to, but away from consumerism. ‘Churchy’ people get angry at the things I say. The depth of the application of the Word in daily life is infinite, and people can’t tolerate outside the comfort zone. There is this irony they see me as ‘outside the gates’ for a quick analogy, or a heretic or something. They hate when I say “science”, and instantly equate that with New Age teaching. I say they are going to miss the boat. I don’t even know what I mean by that specifically yet.

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  • Randy Jones

    Thank you Carey! Praying for the future of the capital C Church! Feel like you are part of His answer!

    • Well, I think Christ is the answer. But thanks Randy. And thanks for all YOU do!

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  • Gregg Turk

    Always enjoy your posts. I’m retired now but pass along helpful stuff to a number of young pastors. I moved from a secular society in Southern California to a religious society in Southern Utah. Our church is totally engaged in reaching LDS folks and primarily the LDS youth. This takes a very different approach. Some of your observations cross over but most don’t. Something to think about.

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  • Bob Garbett


  • Vicky Hawkins Kelley

    Great post. Can’t get the Andy Stanley article link to work. I’ve noticed the change in his approach and would love to read it.

  • Jo Ann

    I’m thinking of taking one of these each month to discuss at our board meetings, and maybe the Women’s Association (the only other group we have).

  • Jo Ann

    My tiny, warm and loving church (15-20 in worship, mostly over 60) has a visitor, age 21, who came “needing some Jesus” because he was deeply troubled by a rap song’s reference to satanic influence. He’s been to church no more than 6 times in his life. In talking with him, I found he had no clue how to find something in the Bible, didn’t really know what a Bible is when I gave him one, and doesn’t know what we mean by “worship.”

    I had changed the words of the gloria patri and doxology to make them gender inclusive and remove the “ghost” reference. A long-time church member asked me why, and I was able to point to the visitor and say “for people like him.” “Do not put a stumbling block in the way of these little ones.”

    It’s humbling to realize he knows NOTHING and I have to start with the very first basics. I told him he is loved. The congregation has embraced him and is praying for him. And he’s coming back.

  • @Carey, where do you get this info from? Thanks!

    “many of the people who come to Connexus for the first time self-identify as having no pattern of regular church attendance (about 60% of new guests in our case).”

    • Hey Justin. We get it from our welcome card. We ask people to identify how often they attend church: never or once or twice a year = unchurched to us. Monthly or weekly = churched. Two realities: church people fill out the card more than unchurched people, and people tend to overreport church attendance. So our actual number could be higher. But those are the stats we’re sure of.

      • Jonny Sharp

        Does Connexus ask the entire congregation to fill out welcome cards or do you get them from those willing to fill it out and turn it in on their own? We’re always trying to figure out how to get more people to fill out a card, and one of the suggestions has been to ask the entire congregation to fill it out each week.

  • George

    So people are finally wising up to the “church as a christianized entertainment industry.” This is no surprise.

  • Big Giant Head

    Interesting. But I always bristle at the term “unchurched.” I’ve yet to see a call in Scripture to “church” people. Makes it sound like we just want butts in the pews. To evangelize and disciple…that is the call. I guess I’m looking for a different word. But I have no desire to ‘church.’ Am I understandable?

  • I really enjoy your insights here. As a former Evangelical who actually worked for Dr. Stanley in the ’90’s I can attest to Andy’s commitment to scripture.

    As someone who’s taken a “different” path than “cool church” or even Protestant “church” I resonate with your disruptive trends. The whole “undiscovered country” for most American Christians is ecclesiology – what is “church?”

    I’m convinced the Holy Spirit is disrupting all of us to return to a timeless view of “Church” instead of a traditional or “old”, or even “relevant” view of “Church.” It’s an exciting and uncomfortable time. A perfect recipe for revival!

    Thanks Carey.

  • Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. (I was standing as well).

    All of these are fantastic. The biggest assumption we make is that we understand what it is like to be unchurched.

    I would add a few more things about pastoring the unchurched vs. pastoring church people.

    1. The unchurched who finally do come to church expect it to look like church. If we are still acting like 90’s seeker-sensitive they are going to be pretty disappointed. Don’t tiptoe around Jesus.

    2. We have to figure out if people are asking for things because they expect churches to do certain programs/emphasis or if they are trying to meet a deeply felt need. We have struggled consistently with church folks asking for more small groups and the unchurched just wanted deeper relationships. It’s the same issue, just totally different language.

    3. Don’t assume anyone knows what you are talking about. Be as deliberate as possible. Call Communion communion and not a love feast. Realize you have to explain everything pretty much every time you do it.

    Great post Carey.

    • This is great stuff Chad! Thanks!

    • Jonny Sharp

      Totally agree on 3. I’ve felt that anytime we decide we don’t need to explain something because “people get it,” we’ve decided that the possibility of a new (unchurched) person being in the room that day isn’t worth our effort.

    • Amy Unruh

      Love feast? Do people actually say that? It’s actually worse than one of my biggest pet peeves, “loving on” people.

    • Deanna York

      “Don’t tiptoe around Jesus.” Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap!

  • greg walker

    Another great read. All good points, but this statement under #5 is incredibly profound: “…connection is heading in the church … a lot like how I feel when I go to a store. I want to be anonymous until I don’t. The moment I’m ready, I want someone to engage me.”

    • Amy Unruh

      The problem with that is that we aren’t mind readers. Are we supposed to suddenly know when a person is ready? If we try to wait until someone is ready, we end up with people who accuse us of not caring, of being standoffish, of ignoring them, etc.